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Inside Conducting

Inside Conducting

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Inside Conducting
    Book Description:

    What does a conductor actually do? How much effect does he or she have? Can the orchestra manage without one? Why don't the players look at the conductor more? Is it necessary for the conductor to play every instrument? What about interpretation? What happens at rehearsals? Why do some conductors "thrash around" more than others? Who's the boss in a concerto: the soloist or the conductor? These are some of the questions that receive lively and informative answers in this book by renowned conductor Christopher Seaman. Composed of short articles on individual topics, it is accessible and easy to consult. Each article begins with an anecdote or saying and ends with quotations from musicians, often expressing opposing views. There are many books on the art of conducting, but none like this. Music lovers wondering what the figure on the podium actually does, and aspiring conductors eager to learn more about the art and craft of leading an orchestra, will all treasure this wise yet humorous book. Christopher Seaman has been successful at both ends of the baton. After four years as principal timpanist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, he was appointed principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and has enjoyed a busy international conducting career for over forty years. He is now Conductor Laureate for Life of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, New York, and he continues to bring great music and wise words to audiences, students, and readers around the world.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-830-5
    Subjects: Music, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    David Zinman

    It is a great pleasure for me to introduce this book by Christopher Seaman, not just because of the book itself but also because of my more than forty-year relationship with him. I first met Christopher when he was chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. He invited me to conduct a concert, and I was overwhelmed by his generosity of spirit, both during rehearsals and after the concert. During the years that followed I was privileged to connect with Christopher on many levels, both as a conductor and as a highly stimulating teacher, and I noted in particular...

    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. PART ONE: The Conductor’s Mind

      (pp. 3-5)

      Conductors come from a wide variety of musical backgrounds. A tiny handful have so much talent and aptitude that they can shortcut parts of a traditional training and produce superb work by sheer musical instinct. But the vast majority need training and experience in a number of key areas.

      Playing an instrument at a high standard is vital as it develops physical coordination, discipline, a good ear, and the ability to create a performance. Keyboard skills are useful, even if the piano isn’t your main instrument. In a traditional European opera house, most staff conductors began as pianists (répétiteurs) before...

    • Two HARMONY
      (pp. 6-9)

      Conductors need to understand harmony. Some do it by instinct, others have academic training; but usually it’s a combination of both, learned through keyboard skills. The shape of a piece is often determined by the keys it passes through, and a performance needs to reflect this shape through pacing, emphasis, and subtle flexibility in tempo. A progression of chords always has moments of tension and release; insensitivity to these can result in a shapeless performance.

      Even conductors whose musical training was not on the piano are so aware of the importance of harmony that many go through their scores, writing...

    • Three MEMORY
      (pp. 10-12)

      It’s a wonderful feeling to know a piece so well that it’s in your bones and your bloodstream. As you conduct, your heart, mind, and hands feel inhabited by the music. You’re free to be flexible in your interpretation and to have continuous eye contact with the musicians, glancing down at the score occasionally, if at all. That’s the ideal. In the real world, some conductors have better memories than others, some pieces are hard to remember, and in the life of a busy conductor there isn’t always time to fully memorize a score.

      A few are blessed with a...

      (pp. 13-14)

      For me, perfect pitch is a kind of memory. I knew the note was F sharp because I’d heard many F sharps before and remembered their pitch, just as I know an object’s blue because I’ve seen many blue objects before and remember their color. I doubt if it’s more mysterious than that.

      Perfect pitch is useful for conductors, especially in twentieth- and twenty-first-century music, often composed without a key. The usual key-based methods of learning a score, such as pitching intervals and “hearing” harmonies in your mind, aren’t always enough to help you learn contemporary pieces thoroughly or to...

      (pp. 15-20)

      Are conductors born or made? I would say both. Conducting is a strange activity: you can have wide musical knowledge, perfect pitch, a photographic memory, a flawless baton technique, skill on several instruments, a doctorate . . . but still be unable to “make it happen.” Other qualities are needed. Players and audiences spot them at once, without being able to describe them. The cellist Robert Ripley wrote: “The better a conductor is, the less you know why.”¹ The qualities can’t be taught, you certainly can’t get them from a textbook, and they can’t be faked by copying a great...

      (pp. 21-24)

      Conducting a youth orchestra is one of the greatest contributions any conductor can make to the world of music. Youth orchestras build the future of music-making and provide young people with priceless opportunities. Although the majority of students don’t take up music professionally, they all benefit in countless ways from playing in a youth orchestra. Apart from all the musical lessons, they learn focus, discipline, and commitment to excellence.

      At age thirteen I joined the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain as a trainee timpanist. At my first concert I was assistant triangle. The experience inspired me to become a...

  7. PART TWO: The Conductor’s Skills

    • Seven BALANCE
      (pp. 27-31)

      Balance is critical in all orchestral music. The most important parts—themes or melodic lines—should be heard clearly, while the accompaniment provides support and interest without drowning them out. The overall combination of sounds should produce the right orchestral color.

      In the past century, some instruments have developed in a way that makes good balance hard to achieve. In Brahms’s day, everybody could play fortissimo and nobody was drowned out; otherwise he’d never have written fortissimo for every instrument! Today in his works the brass needs to play inside the sound of an orchestra, often more quietly than is...

    • Eight CHORAL WORKS
      (pp. 32-34)

      A choral work affects the entire schedule, because most choirs are amateur and can only rehearse in the evenings. The chorus director begins preparing the choir several weeks before the performance, so he needs to know a conductor’s interpretation well in advance. I usually provide a vocal score with pencil marks indicating tempi, dynamics, phrasing, and where to breathe. If possible, I meet the chorus director or speak to him over the phone.

      The conductor takes at least one chorus rehearsal with piano, with the chorus director present. Two or three rehearsals with chorus and orchestra follow, depending on the...

      (pp. 35-40)

      I’m often asked who’s in charge during a concerto, the soloist or the conductor. As a general rule, when a soloist has the tune or the main feature, he takes the lead and the conductor accompanies; when the orchestra has the tune, the soloist follows the orchestra. When they both have the tune, they work together as a team. A conductor needs to be sensitive to soloists’ various needs: some like to be conducted, while others close their eyes and expect you to keep the orchestra with them. The pianist André Tchaikowsky told me he never looked at conductors because...

    • Ten EAR
      (pp. 41-42)

      Orchestral musicians love stories about conductors who can’t hear what’s going on. This is partly out of a sense of natural justice (“I’m expected to use my ears, so why can’t that man on the podium use his?”) but more because a conductor who hears everything gives them focus. His awareness of details helps their concentration and their ability to play as an integrated unit. It’s frustrating to play with a conductor who doesn’t hear what’s happening. I know—I’ve done it.

      The importance of ear training can’t be overemphasized, and it’s never too early to begin. When I was...

    • Eleven EYE CONTACT
      (pp. 43-45)

      Nearly all conductors would say that eye contact is essential. Herbert von Karajan was a famous exception: he seldom looked at any player, but his superhuman powers of concentration established a strong connection with his musicians.

      Eye contact communicates when to play and how to play. It’s not merely a way of giving cues; to a sensitive musician it can convey expression, style, and mood. It can serve as a reminder of something important from the rehearsals, and it gives individual players a strong sense of involvement. It also makes them feel the conductor is open to what they’re doing,...

    • Twelve OPERA
      (pp. 46-49)

      An opera conductor needs a strong background knowledge of singing, style, and traditions of performance. All the skills of orchestral conducting are required plus several more. A new production is ideal for a conductor, because the musical side can be rehearsed and established before production rehearsals start. Even then, a number of important questions have to be considered. Will the conductor have any say in the casting? Will he choose which version of the opera is to be performed? How many orchestral rehearsals will there be? How will the orchestra be arranged in the pit? Will there be an experienced...

    • Thirteen REHEARSING
      (pp. 50-60)

      Bruno Walter used the word knack to describe the art of rehearsing.¹ Conductors have to find and develop their own knack; no two will go about it in the same way because of their different personalities and musical ideas. But most experienced conductors would agree on a number of basic principles to pass on to their younger colleagues:

      The most important thing about a rehearsal is that it’s not an end in itself. Everything a conductor does must aim at a good performance “on the night.” It takes experience to learn how to give your all yet to keep something...

  8. PART THREE: The Conductor’s Hands

    • Fourteen BATON
      (pp. 63-65)

      There are many varieties of batons: sticks of different length, thickness, and weight, with handles of various shapes made of wood, cork, or plastic. In my experience, playing timpani at the back of orchestras and conducting at the front, I’ve noticed that a natural wood color is hard to see, especially if a conductor wears a light-colored shirt or jacket. Batons should be painted white, and conductors should wear solid, dark colors at rehearsals.

      With some batons, the handle is so tiny that you’re forced to hold the stick itself, sometimes as thin as ⅛ inch (3 mm). Sweat makes...

    • Fifteen BEAT
      (pp. 66-78)

      Conducting technique isn’t just a matter of making the right gestures. What you do with your hands has to start from inside you. The musical feelings in your heart, the rhythm in your guts, and the knowledge in your mind all need to inhabit your hands, however unorthodox your style, and then get across to the orchestra. This ability to communicate and energize is a gift, not unlike an actor’s ability to “reach” an audience; the best baton technique in the world is inadequate without it. Any conductor blessed with this priceless gift needs to make the most of it...

      (pp. 79-82)

      I’m often asked why orchestras play behind the conductor’s beat. The effect is puzzling for audiences and a nightmare for inexperienced conductors.

      Most of the best orchestras have developed the habit of playing slightly late, because it can produce a more beautiful sound than playing clinically together with a clear beat. The larger instruments, with their longer strings and tubes, need time to speak; otherwise an orchestra sounds top-heavy and lacking in depth. Many good conductors encourage the habit by smoothing out any impulses or “clicks” in their gestures, allowing an orchestra to find its own ensemble instead of dictating...

      (pp. 83-85)

      Bach, Handel, and most of their contemporaries often directed performances from the harpsichord. This has inspired many modern conductors to adopt the same method. Baroque orchestras, smaller than full symphony orchestras, sit close enough to hear the harpsichord. This gives the musicians the rhythmic precision and drive a drummer gives to a jazz band. A good harpsichord-director will know how to “spice things up”: if he’s creative and has flair, he can influence the way everybody plays, adding shape, color, and character. In Messiah, most of the arias are for solo voice and violins, accompanied by the bass instruments and...

      (pp. 86-92)

      Some people are more demonstrative and flamboyant than others. Nobody wants to stop a conductor from being himself or expressing what’s in his heart, but controlling the size of gestures does have many advantages. It makes an orchestra “come to you” instead of you throwing everything at them, creating better concentration and closer rapport. Otherwise, they’re forced to “filter out” half of what you’re doing. From a practical point of view, it’s hard to hear what’s going on if you thrash about too much, because air is rushing past your ears and you’ll probably get out of breath. Big gesturing...

  9. PART FOUR: The Conductor and the Musicians

    • Nineteen AUDITIONS
      (pp. 95-98)

      Because it’s so important to pick the right player, an audition day is stressful for everybody. Auditions need to be run efficiently and candidates handled courteously. A wrong choice could be made if a good candidate plays badly because he’s put off by poor organization or harsh treatment. I’ve never agreed with the view that auditions should be as unpleasant as possible so the player with the hardest neck wins. An orchestra needs players who are sensitive as well as tough.

      There’s a wide range of procedures for auditioning, but this is typical:

      The position is advertised, and any suitable...

      (pp. 99-100)

      Chamber orchestras are different animals from symphony orchestras, because they are smaller and much of their repertory was composed before baton conducting began. All Baroque and Classical music, and some early-nineteenth-century pieces, were directed from the keyboard or the violin. Orchestras were smaller, playing together by listening and by watching the leader. Modern chamber orchestras have this ability and often perform with a “soloist-director” rather than a conductor.

      When I work with chamber orchestras, I enjoy taking full advantage of the players’ highly developed ensemble skills. It is even more important than usual not to over-conduct. There’s no need to...

    • Twenty-One CHIEF CONDUCTOR
      (pp. 101-104)

      Working regularly with the same orchestra is the ideal. Conductor and musicians get to know one another, the connection between them grows and deepens, and each time they perform a piece they can take it to a higher level. Together they develop their own style and individuality, and they play into each other’s hands.

      A chief conductor (often called the “music director”) is responsible for his orchestra’s artistic standard. If he wants to maintain or raise this standard, there are some key things he must do. His rehearsals have to establish a good musical style and maintain or improve the...

    • Twenty-Two FRIEND OR BOSS?
      (pp. 105-106)

      When I was an orchestral musician, some chief conductors had an “in” group in their orchestras. Other players resented this because it created a two-tier hierarchy, the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The little groups were viewed with suspicion and had a negative effect on the orchestras’ unity and morale: players outside them felt demeaned, unappreciated, or even insecure. John Barbirolli was an exception: he had a number of personal friends in the Hallé orchestra but was so revered and adored that it wasn’t an issue for the other musicians. Before a conductor develops close personal friendships with any of his...

      (pp. 107-114)

      When I joined the London Philharmonic the violinist Marie Wilson, who sat next to the concertmaster, told me that in an orchestra you have to “set yourself aside.” Your opinions don’t count as much as those of the conductor or the leading player in your section. Concertgoers often don’t realize how much skill is needed in an orchestra. You’re expected to play to a high standard and to respond to leadership as a creative member of a team. Some feel they could never do the job, because they wouldn’t want to spend their lives “obeying” a conductor; even some established...

      (pp. 115-117)

      In my first job as an assistant conductor, I was lucky to have an experienced and supportive concertmaster (known as “leader” in British orchestras). His name was Tom Rowlette, a real pro who “knew the business.” Tom quietly kept me on the right track when my inexperience showed, either musically or in my dealings with the orchestra members, most of whom were old enough to be my parents. He was a passionate musician who hated cool, detached playing. I remember a rehearsal of a Tchaikovsky symphony when he suddenly yelled at a tentative player, “Excuse me, you’re not having tea...

      (pp. 118-120)

      Leading players don’t want this kind of attitude from a conductor; they need to feel his support for the way they’re playing a solo. But a conductor may sometimes have to ask a musician to play in a different style to fit with his view of a piece. Talented musicians can play a tune beautifully in many ways and can usually adapt, provided the conductor’s request is reasonable. If a player is lacking in the poetic department, he may need help with shaping a solo, but it’s best to hear what he does of his own accord before intervening. The...

    • Twenty-Six STAGE SETTINGS
      (pp. 121-128)

      There are many options for stage settings, depending on the acoustics of a hall, the size and shape of a platform, whether an orchestra uses risers or the flat stage, and a chief conductor’s preferences.

      Figure 1 illustrates one of the most common settings for the strings. From about 1940 until the beginning of the twenty-first century, this was the standard setting for all conductors. There were exceptions, including Adrian Boult and Otto Klemperer, who had the second violins sitting on their right, with the cellos left of center and the basses behind (fig. 2).

      This second arrangement was generally...

  10. PART FIVE: The Conductor and the Instruments

    • Twenty-Seven STRINGS
      (pp. 131-141)

      Because the strings form the majority of an orchestra and are the basis of its sound, it’s helpful if a conductor has played a stringed instrument. To know about strings is better than nothing, but if he has experienced firsthand how it feels to pull a sound out of an instrument, he’ll have extra empathy with the players. He’ll know what they need to do to produce the effects he wants, and his gestures will communicate, consciously or unconsciously, colors in the string sound.

      This isn’t a textbook on string playing, so we’ll look at some of the more common...

    • Twenty-Eight WINDS
      (pp. 142-147)

      Most conductors are pianists and string players, and probably only a minority have specialized on a wind instrument. To rehearse effectively, a conductor needs to understand the character of each instrument, what it can and cannot do, so he doesn’t lose credibility by asking for the impossible.

      The greatest players can play very loudly and very quietly, but they don’t usually produce their quietest playing until they know you expect it. All instruments have limitations: it’s hard to play softly in the lowest part of the double-reed instruments (oboe and bassoon) or in the highest part of the flute and...

      (pp. 148-154)

      A good timpanist or percussion player needs a superb sense of rhythm, an instinct for drama, and a feeling for ensemble. Sometimes he has to anticipate, relying on what he sees (the conductor’s beat) rather than on what he hears (other instruments), because he’s usually at the back of the stage and experiences a time lag. If a conductor isn’t clear, a timpanist or percussionist may have to take the initiative and lead the orchestra with confidence and chutzpah. That’s why I was advised to play the timpani as part of my training as a conductor.

      All percussion instruments influence...

  11. PART SIX: The Conductor, the Composer, and the Score

    • Thirty COMPOSERS
      (pp. 157-160)

      Amusing though this anecdote may be, it gives a false impression. I’ve found that composers have an excellent ear for their own music, but they’re not always organized in how they write it down. A composer’s clear and practical instructions are essential for a piece to sound as it should.

      Some composers misjudge balance, because they don’t always remember which instruments are louder than others: for example, a flute solo in the low register is hard to hear if it’s accompanied by a full brass section. Concerto accompaniments are often written too heavily; two excellent violin concertos by living composers...

      (pp. 161-167)

      Most of a conductor’s work is done before he sees an orchestra. He spends many hours studying and preparing his scores, building an intimate and detailed knowledge of the music, and arriving at an interpretation. If you love a piece, this seldom feels like “work.”

      The first aim in studying a score is to hear it in your mind and “sing” it inwardly, in its overall sound and in the details of the instrumentation. An excellent ear is essential and absolute pitch a great advantage. Your aim is to make the piece your own, to absorb it with heart and...

    • Thirty-Two MARKING PARTS
      (pp. 168-173)

      While visiting different orchestras, I often find myself saying the same things to the same players in the same spots. If I provide a set of marked parts, I don’t have to talk so much. String parts need the basic bowings (up and down bows and slurs) plus occasional instructions like “pt” for point of the bow, “on” and “off” for playing on or off the string, and “save” for saving the bow. Every instrument will probably need some markings, maybe dots for staccato or lines over notes to be played long. Dynamics may need to be adjusted to ensure...

      (pp. 174-184)

      During the twentieth century, musicians began to wonder if they were missing something essential by playing older music in a modern style on modern instruments. After all, most orchestras’ repertory spans about three hundred years. My professor at Cambridge, Thurston Dart, painstakingly researched Baroque performance practice. Along with many of the world’s greatest scholars and performers, he explored conventions of playing, pitch, tempo, style, and the sound of the instruments. Today, there’s a general interest in “performance practice.” Musicians gain insight and inspiration from knowing how a piece sounded at its first performance. In different degrees, this knowledge influences the...

      (pp. 185-190)

      All music has shape. A tune “played” by a computer compared with a performance by a great violinist is as different as a poem “spoken” by a computer compared with a recitation by a leading actor. The violinist and the actor bring out the shape of the tune and the meaning of the words by subtle variations of emphasis and pace.

      All music needs to be shaped in varying degrees, depending on its period and style. In the Baroque and Classical periods, composers expected a consistent pace, and performers wouldn’t generally take liberties with tempi. Many Baroque tunes are accompanied...

      (pp. 191-200)

      The style, spirit, and expression of any work are mainly captured by the tempo, so it forms a major part of the interpretation. There’s seldom one “right” tempo, and it’s more critical with some pieces than others. Choice of tempo can be subjective, based on a conductor’s musical personality and taste; or it can be practical, based on his knowledge of performance practice, the acoustics of a hall, or the standard of an orchestra. Tempo is a means rather than an end. We all try to find tempi that make the music sound great. In the hands of a talented...

  12. PART SEVEN: The Conductor and the Audience

      (pp. 203-204)

      The barrier between stage and auditorium is broken when a conductor addresses an audience. Musicians dress like Victorian morticians, so the public needs to see that we’re real people, longing to share a passion for great music. Many orchestras have a special series of concerts designed to attract new patrons, where the conductor introduces and explains each piece.

      When I speak to an audience, I start with a musical point they already know to establish common ground. I can then move to the unfamiliar without making them feel lectured or patronized. Many people are afraid to go to a concert...

      (pp. 205-207)

      Most conductors stand down from the podium to share applause with the musicians. After all, without the orchestra you’d hear nothing but the occasional grunt, sniff, or swish of a baton through the air. In pieces with an important part for a particular instrument (such as the violin solo in Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben), the player is given a solo bow. Most conductors like to recognize each section of the orchestra at the end of a concert. In a piece with a number of important solos, such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, I note all the solo instruments on the last...

    • Thirty-Eight PROGRAM PLANNING
      (pp. 208-210)

      The responsibility for planning an orchestra’s programs is normally shared between the chief conductor and the artistic administrator. The overall plan for a season is like a huge jigsaw. The chief conductor’s periods with his orchestra are fitted in first, then those of the guest conductors and the soloists, most of whom will have worked with the orchestra before. Fresh faces are a good idea, provided they’re known to the conductor, the artistic administrator, or someone they both trust. Media hype is an unreliable source of information about guest artists, because many opinions are provided by paid publicists.

      Once a...

  13. PART EIGHT: The Conductor and “the Business”

    • Thirty-Nine CAREER AND AGENTS
      (pp. 213-215)

      In the real world, it’s a bit of both. A young conductor starting a career needs to be noticed by agents, conductors, and orchestral managements. They may give him opportunities or even sign him up if he can persuade them to watch him work. As well as managing “big names” (with big fees), agents see it as part of their duty to help young conductors start a career. An effective agent believes in a conductor and promotes him with energy and conviction. The launching of my own career was largely a result of the wonderful work of Jasper Parrott in...

    • Forty CRITICS
      (pp. 216-217)

      The demands on a critic are legion: to listen with fresh ears every time, to be unaffected by other writers, to be skeptical of hype, to have a strong musical background and ears good enough to hear what’s really happening.

      Sensitive musicians find negative criticism at best unpleasant, at worst unbearable. Unfavorable press coverage made Wilhelm Furtwängler stop conducting in America. The soprano Rosa Ponselle is said to have bought every newspaper she could find so people wouldn’t be able to read a bad review. Some performers refuse to read reviews, either because they don’t care or because they care...

    • Forty-One GENDER
      (pp. 218-219)

      When I joined the London Philharmonic at age twenty-two, there were two women in the orchestra: the harpist, because “playing the harp was women’s work, like ironing,” and one violinist “who didn’t count because she was over sixty.” This was the dinosaur attitude of many of my experienced colleagues.

      After I’d been in the orchestra for about a year, the concertmaster wanted to bring two or three excellent female violinists into the orchestra. There was a huge outcry from some of my older colleagues. I was in a group of younger players who persuaded the management that the concertmaster’s views...

      (pp. 220-222)

      As a guest conductor, you walk into a situation you didn’t create. First of all, you have to fit into an orchestra’s programming schedule. The chief conductor has first choice of programs, then guest conductors suggest ideas for theirs. Either I’m asked “what would you like to conduct?” or I’m told “the program will be . . .” Normally, it’s something between the two. A list of pieces I won’t be allowed to do (because they’re already programmed or have been done recently) helps me see the gaps and make suggestions. If the soloist is a celebrity, I may have...

      (pp. 223-224)

      A manager (sometimes called “chief executive” or “president”) is responsible for overseeing an orchestra’s management team, from finance and fundraising to marketing and media relations. With some orchestras, the manager is the chief conductor’s boss; with others, it’s an equal partnership. A good relationship with a manager is a priceless blessing for a chief conductor. It’s collaborative, with the conductor developing an artistic vision for the orchestra and the manager doing his best to make that vision a reality. The two need to be open to each other’s suggestions while still respecting the boundaries of professional expertise. Problems arise when...

    • Forty-Four RECORDING
      (pp. 225-227)

      Recording is good for a conductor’s career because it makes him well-known; orchestras like to engage well-known conductors because they attract audiences.

      At a recording session, time is of the essence. You have to record the first take within an hour, even with an unfamiliar orchestra, and listen to it during the coffee break. Although many good recordings have been done this way, it’s not an ideal system. Making a recording after performing the music in concerts is better, because it will be thoroughly rehearsed and “played in.” But the best way of all is to record actual concerts, followed...

      (pp. 228-232)

      Traveling is part of a conductor’s life. The novelty wears off, but the pleasure of visiting pleasant places and conducting good orchestras continues. Every traveling musician has his own routine. Here are some suggestions, many of which will be familiar to regular travelers:

      Make sure in advance that your passport and visas are up-to-date. Most agents take care of this, but it’s always worth checking. Book your flights early; you may get cheaper rates, important if you’re paying for your own transport.

      When your journey involves changing planes, allow at least two hours’ layover time. I’ve proved again and again...

  14. PART NINE: Inside the Conductor

      (pp. 235-236)

      Good conductors use an intensity of concentration needed in very few other jobs. This enables them, often in an uncanny way, to project thoughts and feelings to the musicians. Arthur Nikisch had a reputation for mesmerizing an orchestra. Someone who played for Arturo Toscanini told me he sometimes felt a strange sensation, like a hand pushing down on his head, when the maestro wanted him to play more quietly.

      It’s infectious—the players are drawn to concentrate as deeply as the conductor. I remember a violinist telling me after a rehearsal in Holland that he worked as a part-time hypnotherapist....

    • Forty-Seven CONTROL AND POWER
      (pp. 237-239)

      How much does a conductor actually control? According to Thomas Beecham, to describe conducting as “controlling an orchestra” shows a total misunderstanding of its function. But Beecham knew full well that his orchestra played at the tempo he wanted, with the shape and artistry he expected. His “control” was subtle, an instinctive part of his natural genius. One of his violinists said, “Beecham just hired the best musicians and let us play.” He got everything he wanted from his orchestra, yet he gave them the feeling they were playing how they liked. That’s the heart of the matter. J. Cuthbert...

    • Forty-Eight EGO
      (pp. 240-242)

      Some of the greatest creative geniuses can be difficult. It’s possible to be a first-class musician and a fifth-class human being—think of Wagner. I’m tempted to wonder whether all art is amoral until I think of Bach.

      When conductors behave badly, it’s often attributed to “a big ego.” I was at a party where the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf told a Toscanini story. She and her husband, Walter Legge (of EMI Records), were in Milan recording Verdi’s Requiem with the conductor Victor de Sabata. When they heard that their friend Toscanini was in town, they went to visit him. He...

    • Forty-Nine LANGUAGES
      (pp. 243-244)

      All opera conductors know Italian and German, possibly French, Russian, and Czech, although many libretti (such as Wagner’s) aren’t in the modern version of the language. When guest conducting away from your homeland, it’s courteous if you make the effort to say something in the local language, even if it’s only “good morning.” This was all the Russian conductor Evgeny Svetlanov could manage when he first came to London, so he employed a charming interpreter called Nina. She often needed to tone down his earthy vocabulary, but the color of her face as she translated usually showed the color of...

      (pp. 245-246)

      Nervousness is like inspiration, because you never know when it will visit you. Often a really tricky concert will find you relaxed, while a safer one will find you strangely nervous. Like a phobia, it’s not rational, and you can’t talk yourself out of it. Bernard Haitink said in an interview, “The last minute before a performance, no matter how often you have done it, you’re always looking into the abyss.”¹

      There are two kinds of nervousness. The good kind fires you up, giving you an edge and a sense of occasion. The bad kind disables you, causes tension, makes...

    • Fifty-One OUR HERITAGE: Some Ancestors, and My Links with Them
      (pp. 247-254)

      Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Wagner represent opposite poles in conducting. Berlioz’s beat was “neat” and “exact,” according to Russian composer Cesar Cui,² and Mendelssohn’s “movements were short and decided,” as described by composer Ferdinand Hiller.³ Wagner’s style was different: “not that of a dry Taktschläger [time beater], but, rather, of a musician who spoke from the soul . . . through gestures that were pure music,” according to conductor Arthur Nikisch.⁴ Wagner’s style, which showed the music rather than the beats, caused problems in London. The Prelude to Tristan and Isolde nearly fell apart because the orchestra, unfamiliar with the piece,...

    (pp. 255-258)
    (pp. 259-262)
    (pp. 263-264)
    Michael Richards
    (pp. 265-268)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 269-271)